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The Doll-Maker of Secunderabad, and a Story of Feminist Resilience

A daughter recounts her mother's unusual profession and her quiet feminism in 1960s' India.

By Chitra Gopalakrishnan

Something about my mother’s handcrafted stuffed dolls held me in their thrall all through my childhood in the mid-1960s and early 1970s in Secunderabad. Girl dolls with their nut-brown skin, almond-shaped eyes and swaying plaits encouraged an inexplicable connection in me. So much so that my secrets were theirs. And as for the boy dolls who were part of the collection, they had their charm too. They did not stand at a sneering distance like the boys in my neighbourhood.

My mother Vimala Jayaram, now 88, no longer creates these wonders. Her eyesight is on the wane and the other apertures are beginning to close in. But her face beams with the memories. “Somehow, other than you, very few children took on my dolls as playmates,” she says with a chuckle. “They preferred plump dolls with blue eyes, fair skin, red lips and blonde hair even though they smelt strongly of paint and plastic.”

doll-6In those years, as they are now, children were socialized to accept white-skinned dolls as the norm, she further explains. Even the golliwog, a fictional character created by Florence Kate Upton in the late 19th century that toy manufactures in the UK and the USA exploited in the 1970s to make ragdolls, had very few takers among the young in India.

“I was conscious in my aim, with each of my handcrafted doll, to connect with the human spirit and build on the experience of looking and interacting with dolls as an artistic one. I saw my dolls being not just wound in wool and wire but as real girls filled with dreams and desires,” my mother tells me.

Naturally, the effort that went into making each doll was immense. She drew their form on paper, cut them to size on cloth, stitched their outlines, securely sewed on their limbs and stuffed them with high-grade cotton. Then she attached faces to their torsos, designed and fitted clothes for them, chose jewellery and painstakingly fastened petite ribbons and flowers on girl dolls.

DOLL2It was not an unusual pursuit. Vimala’s passion for making Indian dolls, from the 1960s till 2007, was one in a chorus of like-minded contemporaries, many of them well-educated, outspoken professional women who wanted to root Indian culture – be it in the area of art, dance, film, music, craft or painting – both within the country and internationally.

“We were all inspired by Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay and Rukmini Devi Arundale who nurtured in us a love for an Indian ethic and who taught us to revel in our Indian-ness,” she explains. “So we were on a collective mission to dream for a future for India. I chose handcrafted dolls as my mission.”

Vimala is content with the fact that I recently wrote a book using her dolls as illustrations, and that her granddaughter has used her dolls to commemorate the Indian way of life and its traditions at her wedding show.

“Each of your lives contain my beliefs and that of my generation in some measure. On a larger scale, the caravan of Indian heritage moves on as our country’s innate talents, beliefs, traditions and our craftspersons’ skills continue as living traditions,” she muses.

doll-maker-1950s-eshe
My mother with her sisters

Before she became a doll-maker, my mother had worked in the 1950s at the Haffkine Institute, Reserve Bank of India and Burmashell in Mumbai, and for the Agricultural Statistical Department at the Pusa Institute in Delhi. “People looked upon it as disturbingly venturesome,” she chuckles.

But as straddling motherhood and a career became increasingly difficult, she chose to become a full-time doll maker. She trained with a lady who had learnt the basics of doll making from Japan and then launched her own enterprise.

“I aligned my work schedule with the routine of my domestic life. I had to source materials like wire, wool, voile cloths, gold borders (gota), lace, accessories for jewellery (beaten silver and gold threads), handmade paper, glue, nails, wooden stands and cards from wholesalers and by venturing into areas and localities that women rarely set foot on. I would travel alone from Secunderabad to Chandni Chowk in Delhi. I also had to find a set of dedicated women to help me and that was a challenge as they like me had to balance work with their family needs and the many illnesses that befell them,” she recalls.

doll-maker2
My parents

My late father was her ally. “When we shifted as a family to Delhi, he made me address the market needs and diversify. On his insistence, I switched to making miniature handcrafted dolls of wire and wool to use on greeting and visiting cards, brooches (that women used on saris and stoles) and as hangings on walls and cars.”

The Central Cottage Industries Emporium, Khadi Bhandar and the Lepakashi and Kamala Emporiums loved my mother’s dolls in different combinations mounted on colourful wooden stands sourced from Channapatna, Karnataka, and my father’s unique design of a dozen dolls with varying Indian costumes on a sturdy triangular frame of thick handmade paper.

She never received accolades. “Ours were simpler times. But I remember people coming up to me and recounting how they collected and preserved my dolls over the years. I had an overseas visitor write me a letter of appreciation. ‘Your diminutive dolls are graceful, unique and with surprising Indian depths,’ it said.” And she’s content with that.

First published in eShe’s September 2019 issue.

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